I just past 50,000 words in my quest to birth a novel. I’ll take any victory along the way. Time to celebrate!
When I was young and first started letting others read my creative writing, I ended up with a lot of pushback from my parents and other adults that I was supposed to trust. I would hear, “Oh, you shouldn’t use those words,” or “That’s not lady-like Michelle.” The whole point of the criticisms, even when I was writing truths, albeit sometimes painful truths, was to tell me that my point of view—my words, my world—wasn’t valid. That somehow my life experiences were things that shouldn’t be written about. And during those times, I wrote about some incredibly painful things. I didn’t really understand that those who were telling me that I shouldn’t write about those things were really concerned for themselves and how they might be perceived through my work rather than how I might be perceived. In other words, it wasn’t about me at all—it was about them.
It has taken me an age to shake off those expectations and I still struggle with them from time-to-time, but I understand better now. I know those expectations are not at all about me, but about them. Just because I don’t fit into someone’s narrow view of who they want me to be, does not make it my problem. It makes it their problem. It took someone emotionally and mentally battering me to really see these poisonous expectations clearly and how they were not only stunting my growth as a writer, but also as a human being.
My father’s passing helped with that too. He had expectations, of course. All parents do. Sometimes they think they are supporting us, but their expectations mold us into something they want us to be instead of letting us be ourselves. I don’t think they always realize that they are doing it. They are often fighting their own demons when they try to shape us. My father certainly was. He grew up in severe urban poverty with an absent father and a single mother who’d have to hock the radio every month to make the rent. I think the reason he had fond memories of his childhood during WWII was because that was when his mother had a good job working in a factory making a decent wage. She lost that, of course, when the men came home from the front and took their jobs back.
My father’s childhood was a constant struggle for money, and having a father (my grandfather) who was an artist (and a drunk) meant that artist in you was not something to be embraced, but hidden and overcome. If you had a creative side, you suppressed it. You got a decent job and worked your way up to management through the ranks (you could do that in his time—not so much anymore) and you were afforded The American Dream. You could buy a house, support a family, send your kids to school, have extra money to save for travel and retirement, and you could do it all without needing a high school diploma (my father joined the Navy at 17 and got a GED during his enlistment).
Dad wanted the same dream for me, but with a college degree. It didn’t matter if my dreams were different. I don’t think he ever understood how much the world had changed. He lived in the past and I’m doing my best to live mindfully in the now.
I’ve always had this incredible desire to be myself. I didn’t realize how rare a thing this was. So many people want to be someone else. In high school, I was at a party where a guy I barely knew was running around drunkenly asking everyone, “If you could be anyone in the world, living or dead, who would you be?” People were mostly answering celebrities or sport stars. I didn’t hesitate; I said I wanted to be myself. I’d had a few drinks and it was a completely honest, spontaneous answer. I shocked the guy. He stared at me in silence for a few minutes then hopped from sofa to chair in his bare feet and shouted my answer to everyone at the party. At the time, I didn’t think it was a remarkable response, but this inebriated guy thought I’d said the most profound thing he’d ever heard and wanted to get to know me better because of it. My answer made me interesting.
I’ve never wanted to be anything other than what I am. I tried to reach the expectations of others because I wanted to please them and wanted them to be proud of me. What I’ve learned along this journey is that expectations are impossible targets because they are always moving. And when you release an arrow from your bow and it’s heading straight for the bullseye and you think you’re finally going to meet those expectations, the target jumps aside and you miss it completely. I’m sure I repeated that shot a thousand times before finally understanding that the game is rigged. You’ll never hit the target so you might as well be yourself.
Learning that lesson was a breakthrough for me in overcoming my biggest block in writing and in life.
Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it. -Greg Anderson
If I’m honest with myself, I started mentally writing this book 15 years ago. I started writing it, in actuality, about six weeks ago, but right after I started, I experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of a beloved pet. That loss crippled me. I couldn’t handle the silence it took to write because all I could hear in the silence was the loss of him. My grief took center stage and the two thousand or so words that I had just written were put aside for a month of losing myself in mindless television and audiobooks–anything to avoid the silence where I might actually have to face that my Murphy was gone.
I was disappointed in myself to some extent. I was just getting my feet back on the write path (pun intended) and I couldn’t face my own thoughts. My world became a series of distractions.
I knew I needed to get back to my words–to the story that I’ve needed to tell for so long, but I just couldn’t face it… yet.
After about a month of nonstop noise, I started to ease myself back into the silence again. It wasn’t easy. The temptation to listen to something, anything, to keep me out of my own head was a battle from minute to minute. We live in a world of easy distraction and I embraced it for a solid month.
My feet had finally landed on a fated step in the long-planned-out path of my life–I couldn’t deny that in myself. So I faced the silence with courage and fear and the book started the arduous process of becoming.
I’m two weeks into serious work on this project and have already been through excitement, depression, and a sense of determination that brought me through both to settle back on the work.
When I first sat down again to research, plan out plot, and develop characters, I knew where the book was leading me. Somewhere during that process the book took a turn and within a two-day period, I had an idea for a book in front of me that was not the book I wanted to write. It plunged me into a severe depression–the kind that doesn’t want to let you out of bed, much less to do the work to bring a world into being with words.
I distracted myself. I took on the mind-numbing task of shaking the separation out of over 100 bottles of nail polish and adding polish thinner to those bottles that had thickened. I had to do something, and that something couldn’t be working on a book that I didn’t want to write.
I started to have all of those doubts that writers have. Was I kidding myself? Why did I think I could do this? I’m obviously not cut out for it. If I can’t even get past the early research stages, then how could I possibly finish a book? Maybe I should just give up?
I finished refreshing the nail polish and the next day I did nothing. I sat and complained in my morning pages and let all of those feelings of doubt hit the page, but I didn’t write anything about the book. I had been using my morning pages to work out plot points, solve problems with structure, and muse on character development and backstory. All I did that morning was quickly write about how depressed I was over finding myself researched into a book that I didn’t want to write. Nothing seemed to hold any joy.
The following day, a Monday, I woke up and went to my morning pages again and… everything worked itself out. An idea that formed during those 15 years of mental writing came back to me and the world of my novel resolved. It was once again the book that I wanted to write. I went from despair to hope over the course of three days.
I finally came to realize that I needed that day of doing nothing. It allowed my overworked mind to rest and pick up the story where it needed to be. The next thing I knew I was immersed in creating the world I’d been imaging and a profound feeling of happiness and purpose stole over me. I started frequently experiencing deja vu–something I haven’t experienced in quite awhile, when it used to be a common occurrence.
And the work began in earnest…
Two weeks into this twisting, turning ride around mountains and off cliffs and I’ve set myself a daily word count goal–at least 1,000 words a day, at least 5 days a week. Those two off days are not specifically scheduled days, but after my misplaced step and my tumble off the writing cliff, I realized that there will be times when my mind might need some space to figure out what’s next and I may need to surrender to that process. So, I’m making room for it.
I decided last night that I was going to share my ups and downs here and try to be as honest about this process as I could bring myself to be. So I’ve added a daily word count and total word count for the rough draft to the sidebar.
What is your process like? What picks you up and dusts you off after a severe and sudden fall off of that metaphorical cliff? I’m listening…